Monday, April 27, 2015

E = mc^2

I keep dreaming that I can fly. But the dreams, all of them, take place inside. Eager to soar I float up, only to bump against the ceiling. I zip from wall to wall as I seek an open window, a vent, anything that might allow me egress. I grow increasingly frantic. I am suffocating.

Is it better not to be able to fly than to possess the ability but be constrained by circumstance from using it?


I am mesmerized by the apocalyptic footage of the oil-slicked birds that make their home in the Gulf region, birds that flap and flap and flap their wings, so much effort, all to no avail. Are they puzzled to find that they are suddenly failing to do something they've been doing since they were hatchlings?

Are they sad? (I am sad. And angry.) Will these birds persist, day after day after day, in their efforts to fly, or will they give up one day, decide enough is enough?


When Twelve was three years old, he stopped napping during the day. Swiftly I instituted quiet time: one hour in which he'd stay in his room and play with his toys or look at his books. That hour was less for him than it was for me. At least I knew my limits.

Quiet time lasted for nearly a year, until one Saturday when, heavily pregnant with Eight, I was half-reading, half-napping and heard a noise. I glanced up and startled to see the face of my preschooler peeking around the doorway. Twelve looked like he'd swallowed the canary and the cat, too. He'd never until that moment realized that he could simply open the door to his room and walk out.

I'm not sure that Einstein could have felt any more pleased with himself when he worked out the equation for the equivalence of mass and energy than my son did that afternoon.


Today my friend and I were having lunch at a restaurant. We'd taken window seats so that we could look at the passers-by. We were talking about an eye doctor in town whose patients routinely wait for ninety minutes before being called in for their appointments.

And then the eye doctor himself walked past our window. It was as if our dialogue alone had substantiated him. Energy, to mass.


Eight has been reading a book about Einstein's life. He tells me that in German, 'Einstein' means 'one stone.' And, in the same breath, he reports that Einstein was deeply concerned about the moral implications of the technology made possible by scientific knowledge.

I nod. I know this. I think of Oppenheimer, and the bomb.

"Mommy!," Eight cries urgently. "It's like the oil spilling into the Gulf, isn't it? Einstein would have been very sad about that, right?"

"Yes, baby," I murmur. "He would have been horrified, I think."

Now it is Eight's turn to nod; he does so with a solemnity that brings me perilously close to tears.

I remember my recurring dream, and I wonder when all the windows disappeared, and how it could be possible that no one noticed when they did.

written in 2010

Thursday, April 16, 2015


I wrote this on the day after my mother died in April, 2009:

I did everything I could think to do before opening that door. Went to the bathroom, washed my face, patted it dry, checked for stray hairs. When I ran out of trivial and time-wasting tasks I stood in the hallway and gulped air before finally turning the knob.

The room was unchanged from the day before. A picture window with a showily pretty blossoming tree filling its frame. A clock on the wall. A hospital bed. Four framed pictures on the nightstand: her three grandchildren, and one of me at thirteen with my grandmother. A TV sat on the bureau that contained no clothes. The TV had never been turned on.

She wasn't cold, but neither was she warm. And she was beautiful. I hadn't expected that, and it was a comfort. Her face, free of anger, sadness, reproach, and pain, for the first time in so long, looked not much older than my own. I took her hand in mine. Her fingers had already curled under.

And then I was crying loud and ugly bursts of tears. I sobbed for the awfulness of the last year and a half. I sobbed because I had never found a way to make it better for her, for me, for my brother. I sobbed because of all the people I have ever known, my mother was the brightest, and could have been the best.

She was all potential, unrealized potential.

I sobbed for who she might have been. For the person I found once in a long while, but only in my dreams.

My mother was the smartest, most talented person I have ever known. Had she been psychologically healthier, she might have moved mountains.

As I cried I found myself repeating, "I'm sorry." Not for anything I did or didn't do, but because there were so many obstacles in her way, because she was miserable so much of the time, because we only have the one life, I believe, and my mother, though she was seventy-two when she died yesterday, never really learned how to live hers.

And that makes me sadder than any of the rest of it.


When my tears relented, I tried to uncurl her fingers, but they wouldn't budge. I pulled the sheet up over her shoulders as I do for my children each night when I check on them just before I go to bed.

People I love? I don't want them to be cold.

I shut the door in order to grant her privacy that she is past needing. Habits that preserve and defend life are curiously strong.

And, eyes dry and aching, I drove away from her and to my brother's house, where my own life was waiting for me to grab it by the reins and show it the way.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Digest This - April 12, 2015

Be moved, inspired, laugh, get angry. I share whatever makes me sit up and take note.

Hillary Clinton has her work cut out for her as she defines herself in relation to President Obama. This New York Times article dissects candidate Clinton's looming challenge: how to position herself. Does she want to seem an Obama supporter or detractor? Can she play both sides and still come across as coherent and persuasive?

I am an unabashed fan of the television show Mad Men. In fact, I have spent too much of this weekend watching Seasons One and Two for the second time, which I recommend doing, by the way. I have caught so many nuances that I missed the first time around. I have never read a more complete analysis of Mad Men's female characters than this essay, written by Linda Lowen.

When I was in graduate school, I taught a few undergraduate courses (Statistics and Introduction to Psychology) for a pittance. Slave labor, we grad students used to mutter, only half joking. So I was saddened but unsurprised to read Carmen Maria Machado's wonderfully written "O Adjunct! My Adjunct!" about the plight of adjunct teachers at universities.

I follow astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter. He is witty and charming, and he has something to say about most everything. His advice to a first grader is spot on, and instructive for today's parents too often intent on protecting and reining in their children.

Did you find these links worthwhile? Let me know!

Monday, April 6, 2015


My mother believed herself a victim, and in a perverse way she was proud of her victim status. In certain respects she was a victim: victim of an inattentive, alcoholic mother. Victim of an absent father. Victim of an inequitable divorce settlement. But she was never the victim she wanted to be. Among the piles of books around our apartment when I was growing up could be found all kinds of victim literature: books about concentration camps, memoirs penned by camp survivors, drawings of children housed in Theresienstadt. There was another large stack of books about anorexia and its victims, books written by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in attempts to explain the disorder, and books written by sufferers themselves.

Not the happiest of libraries in my childhood home, and emaciation everywhere you looked.

My mother identified culturally as Jewish (although she was half-Jewish, on her father's side, which according to the laws of Israel doesn't even count) only so she could gain proximity to the sorrows of its people. When it was inconvenient to be Jewish, she dropped the label. Oh, we celebrated Christmas with angels and the Messiah and carols sung by little British choirboys whose high voices bounced off of ancient stone cathedral walls.

As a child who loved Christmas but who could also name every concentration camp in Germany and Poland, I found my mother's preoccupations rather peculiar. Now I find them inestimably sad.


When my mother developed a blood disorder in her late sixties, she was told that there was a tiny chance the condition might eventually morph into leukemia. So when she called me to tell me about her diagnosis, of course she stressed the leukemia aspect. So convincing was she that I ended up believing she had leukemia. What she had was not leukemia but a propensity to overproduce red blood cells. The treatment was simple and effective: to have blood drawn once a week to counter the overproliferation. The danger of foregoing treatment was not, as I'd been informed, the development of leukemia, but much more likely to be stroke.

I know my mother as well as I do myself. She had crossed out the possibility - indeed, probability - of stroke, because stroke was not a diagnosis that lent itself to victimhood the way leukemia did.

Predictably she refused to have her blood drawn once a week and ended up having a catastrophic stroke. A victim she was, but mostly a victim of needing to maintain her victim identity in face of all evidence to the contrary.


I am incredibly lucky not to have inherited my mother's psychiatric issues. I never thought myself a victim, though living in her household I often thought myself fat.

Sometimes I rail against the way it was and had to be. I think about my name, Sarah, and why my mother called me Sarah. She told me her reason, once when I was maybe twelve years old. "In 1939," she said, "Hitler decreed that all Jewish females should be known by the name 'Sarah.'"

Then she looked at me expectantly. This was, in her mind, a perfectly sufficient justification for naming a baby.

I nodded, because tragically, I already understood her well enough to find her bizarre reasoning logical in its own way, within its own system.


I have not suffered from cancer, or stroke. I have not lived with anorexia. I have not been persecuted for my religion or lack thereof. I have been given a victim's name, but I choose to recast the source of my name well back to its origin in biblical times: Sarah, lady, princess, noblewoman.

You might say that I am a victim of how I was raised, immersed as I was in victim language, history, and culture.

But I am no victim, and unlike my mother, I am proud to say so. I am Sarah, lady, princess, noblewoman. No, I am Sarah, an ordinary person living a blessedly ordinary life, capable of mourning all the victims but always aware of my place outside of their tragically large and crowded circle.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Staying the Course

They lay in bed, separated by a stack of books arranged to define the divide more than to be read. She finished a Bradbury story and mused: “What if today were the last day of our lives?”

"What?," he snapped, studying the crossword; the answer to 'effortful but futile' was crystallizing –

"I wouldn't do anything different," she pronounced, mouth pursed. “That'd be – flighty.”

“Sisyphean!,” he crowed.

“You weren't listening,” she complained, adding, "Take your pills," as she fluffed pillows. Obediently, he swallowed her medicine, she his. And but for this – deviation, if you will – their last day was altogether ordinary.

written in 2007 when i was challenged to tell a 100-word story